“Fraser. Get Up.”
A stream of bright light smacked my eyes. I groaned and rolled over to bury my face in a cool spot on my pillow.
“Now.” The tone of the guard’s voice made it clear that she would brook no dissent. “Sheriffs will be here to get you in half an hour.” As she spoke, the beam of her flashlight continued to dance along the side of my head.
This wasn’t right. My early morning fog of confusion transformed into a cloud of annoyance. “You’ve got the wrong person,” I mumbled, not bothering to move. “I have video court here in the afternoon. Go find the sucker who actually does have to get up now.”
“I havefound her,” insisted the voice. “The papers say Fraser. And what the papers say goes. Get up.” The guard rattled the omnipotent papers as she turned from the doorway and disappeared back into the unit.
I lay there and listened to the squeak of rubber-soled shoes and the clatter of keys fade into the distance.
Quiet engulfed the room. Silence was a rare commodity in jail, harder to find than a toothpick-sized joint of contraband pot. Day in and day out, the prison was filled with the sounds of women—inmates and guards alike—playing out the pageant of institutional existence. Shouts and laughter competed with television and radio noise. Buzzers and beeps and clicks of electronic locks percussed. Walkie-talkies crackled, and overhead speakers hissed. The voice of Control rode roughshod over the cacophony, directing the show. Yet, in my cell, hours before dawn, the only sounds were the ragged breathing of my roommate Sara and a soft purring from the ventilation system.
I tossed back the thin cotton blanket. Cold air hit my skin and shocked me fully awake. I dressed quickly, slipping into the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women’s uniform of gray sweats. Wrenched from the freedom of dreams and swathed in fleece, I was again just another inmate: Number 05073507.
In a way, I enjoyed the sense of community. This wasn’t my first trip to jail, and being back felt like returning to the neighborhood bar where everyone knows your name. In prison, we were all the same. Dealers, fraud artists, car thieves and robbers alike were smoothed out and refolded identically: We were a thousand paper cranes, our gray wings incapable of flight.
My bed made and my body dressed, I ventured out into the unit in search of the insistent guard. Under dimmed lights, the dusky violet modular seating and pea-green walls looked especially nonstimulating. Just the effect the decorators were going for, I thought.
The guard was exactly where I knew she would be, waiting in the glassed-in office by the unit’s front door. Though the regular cadence of institutional life drove some crazy, most inmates were creatures of habit. I, especially, found the predictability reassuring.
True, on the outside, you got to hang out with Freedom. Freedom was a cool chick—totally outside the box. She had a penchant for all-night dancing, ice cream for breakfast and black platform boots. The problem with Freedom was the questionable company she kept.
Freedom rolled with her junkie friend, Chaos. Chaos had no idea who you were, nor did she care. She was an instigator par excellence. Just when you started having fun, Chaos broke a window, smoked the rent money, and got into a fistfight with your boyfriend. Midnight moves were her trademark, and she always waved to you as the police hauled your ass off to jail.
Nope, I didn’t miss either one of those crazy bitches.
Life at ACCW was a series of scheduled guarantees: wake, dress, eat, work, eat, lockdown, work, eat, TV, lockdown, sleep and repeat. Within this framework, I was at ease, firmly rooted in time and space.
The guard escorted me across the grassy quad, still dark in the predawn hours. I took a last breath of fresh air before I was loaded into the back of the British Columbia Sheriff Service’s modified Chevy transport van. The metal interior of the van was cool, but its decor was luxurious compared to our destination. The driver fired up the engine, and the rocking of the van lulled me back to sleep.
We arrived at 222 Main Street within the hour. Vancouver’s criminal courthouse, a brick bastion in the heart of the city’s infamous Downtown Eastside, was surrounded by a seething landscape of poverty, drug abuse and degradation. As if in empathy, the city cells, located deep within the bowels of the courthouse, were similarly barren and filthy.
The sheriff removed my shackles and ushered me into a cell that could have doubled as a walk-in refrigerator. Two long plastic benches were riveted to the cinder block walls. A small metal sink and toilet were partially screened from view by a three-foot privacy wall. Unblinking, a security camera monitored the entire area. I sat on one of the benches and folded my body into a tiny ball. I leaned my head back on the wall. The bricks, once white, were covered in the grime of a thousand faces. They looked vaguely organic. I closed my eyes and settled into a fitful sleep.
“Fraser,” shouted a male voice.
I woke with a start, unsure of how long I had been asleep. It felt far too early for court, and yet, there was a man standing at the door of my cell. He was dressed in the navy-blue uniform of BC Corrections.
The officer was in no mood for pleasantries. “What’s your address?” he demanded, placing his meaty hands on his hips.
I paused for a moment, held back by a deeply ingrained suspicion of anyone in a uniform.
“What’s your address?” he asked again. Irritation leaked all over his words like urine from a stopped-up cell toilet.
“My address?” I was loath to give away any more information than necessary. “Are you serious, buds? I think you know perfectly well where I’m living.” I laughed, attempting to smooth over my noncompliance, and gave him the address for ACCW.
The officer’s brow tightened. “Your real address, smartass.”
I considered the situation. The officer was clearly determined to get the answer he wanted. Well, it’s not as if he can’t just look it up in the computer, I thought. I sighed and gave him my last known address.
The disclosure seemed to bolster the officer’s indignation, and he settled into the mood as if reclining into his favorite La-Z-Boy. He rocked back on his heels and folded his arms across his chest. “That’s what I thought,” he replied, “but I didn’t recognize you out of your nurse’s uniform.” A smug look danced across his countenance. It was the look of a man who knows something you don’t. I hated that type of look. It made me nervous. The officer gave a final smirk and left.
Since I had nothing but time, I tried to tease out some sense from the encounter.I didn’t recognize the officer’s face. In fact, nothing about him was distinguishing. He looked as unique as one bowl of oatmeal from the next. Officer Porridge—the thought brought a smile to my face.
He knew who I was; that much was certain. But I was used to that by now.
Police, court, corrections—all were in the business of knowing about people like me. Over the years, irrefutable facts had been compiled about my person. I became a “known offender.” My race, place and date of birth were recorded. My fingerprints and mug shots were indelibly inserted into the digital record. The system meticulously documented our encounters with colored labels: suspect, charged, suspicious persons, fraud, falsify, theft, possession, impersonation, prohibited. The police knew where I was supposed to be and what I wasn’t supposed to be doing. All these bits of data were bundled together in a single file and preserved for posterity within the Canadian Police Information Centre.
Yet, even the system appeared to understand the transitory nature of identity. CPIC listed my physical statistics as “eyes blue, was 173 cm (5 ft 08 in) 054 kg (119 lbs) in 2005-10,” as if at some point between then and now, I may have grown to new heights of depravity.
It wasn’t just physical details that were slippery and transmutable. Names were just a series of letters, easily rearranged into something unrecognizable. Various aliases, like loose bits of yarn, had to be carefully wrapped around the tangled ball of information.
The real trouble seemed to arise when the system sought to nail down more ephemeral aspects of character. Inexplicably, my CPIC file warned, “<<caution>> violent.” How had they come up with that characterization? Was there a look in my eyes that even I had missed in the mirror? Were police officers trained, like their canine counterparts, to sniff out the most primal of human emotions?
Still, I can’t fault the system for its shortfalls. How could they be expected to know who I was when I no longer knew myself?
There was a time when my identity had been held in place by the web of relationships that was my life. I was the person I thought my family, friends, co-workers and schoolmates wanted me to be. I was considered a success in the eyes of others. I was miserable.
The change came both in the blink of an eye and so slowly that I didn’t notice until well past the point of no return. I discovered crystal meth and fell instantly in love. From the first inhalation, I knew I had found an answer. I became the person I had always wanted to be: I was creative, funny, outgoing, ambitious and full of energy.
As for the rest of it, “magna est vis consuetudinis”—great is the power of habit.Daily drug use begat daily crime. This alchemic combination of drugs and crime reshaped my concept of identity. Speed and sleep deprivation blurred the already thin veil between reality and fantasy. The first time I slipped into another person’s identity, I felt as if I had been given the keys to the universe.
Whereas I could envision myself in only one shape before, now I could see hundreds of possibilities. Had I moved closer to my true essence, or was I now so radically removed I could no longer tell who I was meant to be? As cold leached from the walls of the cell and permeated the thin layer of my sweatsuit, I wondered if I would ever know the answer.
“Hey. Get up and move over. You’ve got friends in here with you now.” The same officer was back. He shepherded three inmates from Surrey Pretrial Services Centre into my cell. So much for first come, first served. I pulled myself up into a seated position and cleared half a bench for the new arrivals.
A woman as broad as she was tall sat down on the bench beside me. There was a piece of what I hoped was breakfast stuck to the front of her sweatshirt. She ran a hand through her black hair, lank and greasy, and started in on introductions.
“I’m Guno. This is Billy,” she said, nodding across the cell at a pretty, young native woman, who was so thin I could see her collarbones jutting from beneath her sweatshirt. Guno pointed to the woman on Billy’s left. “That one can’t talk. Don’t know her name. She’s new. But she seems OK.” The mute woman had thin grey hair and looked elderly, although you could never really tell in jail. I’d seen plenty of women prematurely aged by the combination of drugs and hard living. The last woman smiled, revealing a large black gap where her two front teeth should have been.
During the time I’d been asleep, the city cells had come to life. The neighboring cells were packed with men. Despite the thick metal doors, crude conversational snippets were hurled in our direction. Billy, Guno and I joined in the fun, hollering back insults and encouragement. Soon, the hallway sounded like a drunken frat party.
Within minutes, heavy footsteps rounded the corner. My new friend from BC Corrections had returned. He ignored the sounds of baritone and bass, and instead walked directly up to our cell. With his not-thin, not-fat face pressed against the small window in the door, he looked directly at me. “Fraser! What’s all the yelling about? This is your last warning. Knock it off!”
“What’s that asshole’s problem?” asked Guno, once he was gone.
“No kidding. He’s riding you pretty hard,” agreed Billy, while our fourth companion nodded emphatically.
“I don’t know,” I said. I settled back into my corner. Paranoia flitted at the back of my mind like a wasp trapped inside a car on a hot summer day.
My name was called for court within the hour. I was guided into the small pen at the side of the courtroom reserved for prisoners in custody. After the stark interior of cells, the wood and carpeting of the courtroom felt opulent. I stared at the various faces in the gallery as the lawyers went through their pro forma motions.
The prosecutor ran through a litany of my current charges. As he summarized his case, I felt as though he were talking about someone else. But there was no way around it; he was talking about me. The prosecutor was handing the judge still pictures taken from security camera footage. The pictures clearly showed my boyfriend, my dog and me carrying boxes of car audio systems out the doors of Audio Video Unlimited. (To be fair, the dog was simply along for the ride.)
Early in my criminal career, I took care to avoid detection, concealing my identity with various disguises. Recently, though, a more nihilistic mood had taken root. I no longer bothered with wigs or costumes. I simply walked in as my own tired, strung-out self. This was a mask well known to Vancouver’s Identity Theft Task Force. Arrests ensued.
My carelessness was a sign of a deeper malaise. I felt like a piece of origami paper that had been folded and refolded into a hundred different shapes. All that was left of me was a two-dimensional sheet, marked with the lines of past contortions. I felt weakened to breaking along those creases. I didn’t want to be myself, and I no longer had the energy to be anyone else.
I’d had grand illusions when I got into the game. Everyone does. There isn’t a dealer on Hastings who doesn’t think he’s going to make it to kingpin; every two-bit teenage gangster from the suburbs sees himself as a potential Hell’s Angel. I had envisioned myself starring in a modern day remake of the exuberant con-man classic “Catch Me If You Can”—complete with international intrigue, haute couture and stacks of credit cards that never maxed out. The reality, as realities tend to be, was far smaller. My crimes, as I heard them read out loud in open court, sounded downright pathetic.
There was no glamour in the prisoner’s box. The names being read by the prosecutor weren’t just pieces of information on paper. They were people who were victims of crime. My crimes. And what had been the point?
I wasn’t amassing luxury goods or having exciting adventures. I was barely enthusiastic enough about life to get out of bed. My drug addiction was a money pit. Even paying the rent was a monthly struggle. I was practicing subsistence fraud—a third-world farmer clinging to a miniscule plot of land in hopes of wringing out an existence from the rocky soil. My crops were meager and wilted, regularly wiped out by drought and flood cast down upon me by the police and my own stupidity.
“Fraser, get up. You’re being moved.”
I opened my eyes and was not surprised to see the blurry white face at the door.
I was placed in a small, triangular cell. Even more barren than the last, this cell was devoid of everything but floor, walls and a ceiling. I was the sole occupant. No camera hung above the door.
Officer Porridge followed me into the cell and swung the door towards shut. Only an inch of space separated the two of us from the outside world. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. His cheeks pinkened like cherries dropped into a bowl of oatmeal.
My heart raced. I didn’t like being backed into an unmonitored cell with no witnesses and one very pissed-off corrections officer.
“No,” I spat back. “Why don’t you tell me who you think you are?”
The cherries smeared into a layer of jam that seeped down Officer Porridge’s neck and disappeared beneath the navy collar of his uniform. “Do you know why you’re here?” he asked. He clipped each word as if biting it off with his rounded, white teeth.
“That depends on your definition of here,” I countered. “Do you mean this particular cell or jail in general? Or … are we talking existentially?” I laughed and stared into his eyes. “Probably not that last one, eh?”
“Quit talking,” he growled. He moved toward me, jabbing his finger in my direction. “You messed with the wrong people. I’ve personally passed your picture around to every sheriff and every corrections officer. They all know who you are and what you did. And they all hate your guts.” The officer paced the small expanse of the cell with the frustration of a tiger trapped for years inside a zoo enclosure. The decibel level of his voice ratcheted up with every sentence.
As he screamed, I ransacked my pockmarked memory. I still didn’t recognize him. Not in the slightest.
There is a reason identity theft is called the faceless crime. For the perpetrators, it is impersonal and cold. People’s lives are reduced to a series of numbers: addresses, birth dates, card limits, overdraft amounts, credit scores. The victim never sees the face of the person who ran up the credit card bill and trashed the credit rating. Even something as violent as robbery or assault has more of a human component.
I never met the rightful owners of the identities I stole. I never had to look into their eyes and answer for what I had done. To me, they were simply information shells to be slipped on and discarded after use.
And yet, right here in my face was a victim demanding a response.
The officer’s cheeks and neck turned deeper shades of red and purple. “Have you ripped off so many people that you don’t even recognize me?” He crossed his arms over his chest and stood glaring, starched uniform heaving under his self-embrace. He took one last look at me and spoke so quietly I almost missed what he was saying. “I think you know exactly who I am.” And then he was gone.
Alone in the cell, I could hear my heart beating furiously. I lay down on the cool concrete floor. Steadied by the hard surface, I closed my eyes and tried to remember.
Like smoke rising from a meth pipe, a memory wafted up from the depths. The Nurse. I remembered a nurse. I grasped for her name but failed. All I could remember were the scrubs. The scrubs and the fear.
The fear was always present, to one degree or another. It lurked, herpetic, beneath the surface of my existence. No amount of dope or desperation could ever eradicate it.
In its most benign form, the fear manifested as extreme procrastination. I had spent weeks getting to know the Nurse. I memorized her address, birth date and Social Insurance Number. I knew which hospital she worked at, what her shifts were and how much she got paid. I learned where she liked to shop and what type of birth control she was on. I studied her banking habits. I digested information bit by bit until I felt like I inhabited her life.
Once I had convinced myself, I set about compiling the items I would need to convince others. I smoked cigarette after cigarette while my Fargo card printer screeched layer after layer of color onto plain white cards. Finally, I had a set of ID I was happy with: a fake Alberta driver’s license and BC Care Card with her name and my face. Everything was in place. And still I waited. Days passed without me leaving my house.
Time was running out. The rent was late. Very late. If our landlord didn’t receive the money by sundown, eviction was imminent.
At 4:30 p.m., the fear stirred. Tiny ripples of anxiety floated through my stomach, belying the fear’s true size. An hour and a half until the bank closed.
“Get dressed,” I commanded myself. “You can at least get dressed.” I slid the scrubs I had bought at Value Village over my bare skin. The cotton felt cold and rough. I had passed over patterns of laughing frogs and balloon bouquets in favor of a plain blue pair. Now, I found myself wishing for those cheerful, lighthearted patterns.
By the time I tightened the drawstring around my waist, my hands were shaking. My hipbones were sharp under the cloth. I worried the bank teller would wonder why a nurse was so skinny.
An hour and a half. “Just do it and get it over with,” I thought. “Hurry now, before the fear metastasizes.”
I had picked a branch far from where the Nurse lived. This location of the Toronto Dominion Bank was housed in a small strip mall off the Fraser Highway in Aldergrove. The neighborhood was rural; I hoped for a trusting, corn-fed teller with milky, innocent eyes.
I hitched a ride on the back of my boyfriend’s old Honda motorcycle. As we rode, I felt the scrubs snapping against my legs in the wind. When we arrived at the bank, I stood staring at the glass-front windows, wondering what awaited me inside. I took a deep breath and crossed the parking lot.
Inside the bank, I was immersed in air-conditioned silence. A handful of customers were huddled in conversations with tellers, conducting their financial transactions with tactful discretion. One teller was free. A man, mid-50s. Not my favorite type by far, but it would look strange to hesitate. I arranged my face in a caregiver’s expression, soft yet stoic. I forced my mouth into the smallest of smiles and walked toward his counter. My sensible, white sneakers, the type seen in hospital hallways everywhere, squeaked loudly with each step.
I wished I was anywhere but there.
I set my purse on the countertop and drew out a small wallet. The teller looked bored and a bit tired himself, as if he were eager to reach the end of the workday.
“I can’t wait to get these shoes off,” I said, smiling ruefully. “I’ve been listening to them squeak all day.”
The teller chuckled. “I bet,” he said, “My feet are killing me. If they could talk, they’d likely be a lot louder than your shoes. What can I do for you?”
I relaxed slightly. So far, so good. Now go for the kill.
“I need to take some money out of my savings account,” I said, “But I can’t find my bank card for the life of me. Here’s my Alberta DL. Oh, and my Care Card.” I slid the identification across the expanse between our hands.
The teller looked at the cards. He began typing information into his computer. I was committed now. Sweat prickled against my blue cotton scrubs. Time slowed to a crawl.
Finally, the teller looked up. “How much can I get for you?”
“$1,500,” I replied. Enough to get the landlord off my back with a bit to spare, but not enough to be suspicious. “I’ll take that in hundreds, please. And in an envelope if you’ve got one laying around.”
The teller handed me the envelope, and I walked out of the bank, the squeak of my shoes slow and steady.
Safely back on the Honda, I exhaled. Now that I had money in hand and the bank was disappearing over my shoulder, fear faded into the exhilaration that always kept me coming back for more.
The door to the tiny cell opened. Two sheriffs had arrived to take me back to Alouette. As they snapped the shackles in place around my wrists and ankles, I looked around for the corrections officer. He was nowhere to be seen.
The sheriff’s van rocketed through the night. I thought about the officer and his nurse. Maybe she was his sister or his wife; maybe he didn’t even know her. In the end, I supposed, it didn’t matter. Whoever that officer was, he felt he was a victim. What I believed he truly wanted from me wasn’t a pound of flesh or a public hanging, but recognition that harm had been done and that I had been the one to do it.
A small corner of my soul, folded and refolded to the point of breaking, disintegrated as I realized I didn’t want to give him even that.